Working remotely is becoming more and more popular, which means that leadership now happens virtually for many teams. Whether an on-site manager works with remote employees or the leaders work remotely themselves, leading people you don't see face-to-face every day requires a slightly different skill set. When you're working across time zones and everyone's interacting from behind their screens, communication becomes even more paramount.
Training leaders to manage remote workers effectively is vital to the success of any remote work program, according to Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs. In general, a remote leader's focus needs to be managing based on results and processes rather than face time, which is so often relied upon in traditional office settings.
Sutton Fell and other leaders of remote workforces offered their best advice on developing managers who work effectively with dispersed teams.
Teach them proactive communication
One of the most useful areas of remote leadership training is proactive communication practices amongst teams and colleagues, said Sutton Fell.
"Proactive communication – taking the initiative to reach out when an idea, question or challenge comes up, rather than waiting to be asked or waiting for a scheduled meeting – can really help to develop a more transparent, open management process, as well as build trust and prevent problems from going unnoticed," she said.
"It's exponentially harder for a remote leader to manage a team, compared with a leader who is managing a team in person," added Phil Shawe, co-founder and co-CEO of translation services company TransPerfect. "To manage a team from a remote location, it's best to make a strong effort to keep in touch with that employee."
Leaders can proactively communicate by holding regular and individual meetings specifically to address questions and help solve problems (not just to give a laundry list of updates), and by setting guidelines so all team members know which communication method – email, phone, IM, video conference, etc. – to use in certain circumstances. For instance, Shawe advised against using email to convey "feelings" or any important updates that might invite a lot of follow-up questions.
Bryan Miles, CEO of Belay, added that remote leaders must also learn to communicate the "why" of important tasks and projects more than the "what," "when" and "how."
"When the leader is not accessible, any hardworking adults can fill in the blank of the 'what,' 'when' and 'how' when they know the 'why,'" Miles said.
Help leaders translate the company culture
Another big piece of the puzzle is training leaders to translate the company's culture for their remote team members. Shawe noted that creating a culture that fosters true leadership is hard enough to do when you're in the same office as someone, and it gets harder the more remote the team becomes.
When Sutton Fell started FlexJobs as a remote company, she was very conscientious in considering how to translate the best traditional office elements and activities to a virtual environment. She advised reaching out to employees regularly to engage in casual conversations – like water-cooler conversations that might happen in the physical office.
Bring people together
Whether it's once a month, once a quarter or twice a year, Shawe said remote leaders should get on the plane to attend a meeting at the company headquarters. This way, they will be able to interact with the rest of their team in person and receive sufficient training for the skills they need. In addition to this, remote leaders should use common conference (industry or internal training) to increase face-to-face opportunities.
Sutton Fell said leadership training needs to focus on "best practices," regardless of whether the leader is remote or on-site.
"Successful leaders focus on communication and culture, challenge and empower their team members, focus on short- and long-term strategy, and the list can go on," she said. "These are all the same approaches that I've used to lead in on-site roles."